Trail Running is the Shit

September 15, 2018

Today was my first ever trail run and I loved it. If you know me at all, you’re aware of my running background, so no need to go into the history except to say I’ve been a road runner all my life. Pavement or sidewalks. Asphalt running paths. Smooth terrain for the most part, at least during the non-winter months. Running in the snow and ice is a different story for another time!

Anyway, today I went to Theo Wirth Park and realized very quickly that I had no idea who Theo Wirth was. So I looked him up just now and learned he was a park-designing big-shot in Minneapolis, and across the U.S. Good for Theo, and hey, thanks for designing so many parks!

So on a very hot and humid morning I set off and got lost within the first 10 minutes. I was running at a comfortable pace among a winding series of shaded trails that would often run side by side with each other, or split into two or sometimes three trails, only to converge at some point later on and feed back into a single trail that was in fact sending you in the opposite direction you thought you were going, just before circling 180 degrees and winding you back in your original direction only to split into two paths once again. Yeah, confusing. But so much fun.

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There were lots of rocky inclines like this….

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…and this.

I used no timer or headphones and praised myself for this decision almost immediately. Instead of loud rock and roll, I focused on the sounds of insects and wildlife and the peaceful singing of my suddenly noiseless mind. It also helped to be a able to hear approaching cyclists because we share these narrow paths and they come at you fast and seemingly out of nowhere. I heard one coming behind me and quickly jumped off the path. Instead of him shouting “ON YOUR LEFT!” or speeding by me close enough to brush my clothing, he calmly said, “Thanks man, enjoy the rest of your run.”

Huh. Not at all like city running. I think I like this.

The running part wasn’t about speed or pace or heart rate or any of that stuff but more about watching where you plant your feet, maintaining your balance and slowing down when you need to slow down – very much like running in snow, ice or wintry slush. I stumbled a few times. I crossed a tiny bridge a little too fast and nearly lost my footing. I tripped on a few rocks but I didn’t crash – yet. I got used to all of it very quickly and fell in love with the scenery. Thick, green foliage spotted with September leaves beginning to turn. A quiet lake over here, insects buzzing around a tiny pond over there. Sunlight cutting through the leaves and a cool breeze soothing me when I’d hit the shade. At one point I rounded a corner and found myself running through what was probably the set of the Lord of the Rings.

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I started calling these “Frodo bridges” because they were narrow and built for tiny hobbit feet.

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Get off the path, you fools!

Half expecting a Black Rider of Sean Astin to emerge slowly from the trees, I picked up speed and found myself on a nice sprint that made me feel like Princess Leia hunting stormtroopers on a speeder bikes from Return of the Jedi.

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That was me.

At another point I found a set of steep steps that climbed up and up to who knows where, so I figured why not, let’s see where they go! I was half expecting to find a 60-year old Luke Skywalker waiting at the top but instead I found more trails. More options. Do I go this way, or that?

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The Jedi Steps are steeper than they look!

I quickly lost track of where I was and relied on the sun to guide me. It was about 9:00am so I knew as long as the sun was to my right I was heading north-ish and away from where I parked my car. Figured the best way to get back was to just turn around and run with the sun on my left. Didn’t really work because the path was so twisting and overlapping and shaded and crossing other paths or opening into 3 different paths that I just enjoyed being lost and figured I’d find my way back eventually. Which I did.

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Here’s the first time I was lost.

After about 45 minutes I KNEW I was heading back toward the car and had about two miles to go. I just knew it. I ran through a field and then found a path and turned south, with the sun on my left. Easy. No problem. Until I arrived at an intersection I had been at roughly 20 minutes ago. Yeah, I just made a huge circle. The kind of stuff you see in wilderness movies when people are lost in the wild. One big circle. No idea how it happened but there I was, right back where I was before. But in this case, there is no danger of freezing to death or starving or being eaten by a giant bear or Ethan Hawke. Just follow a path, any path, and you’ll eventually reach a road. So I simply turned around and headed back the other way!

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Lost again! Full circle and heading the wrong direction.

Eventually I made it back to my car and checked my watch. I had been running for a little over an hour and my legs told me I had gone about 6 miles so I figured hey, I’m feeling good so I ate a banana, drank a Gatorade, squeezed the sweat out of my shirt (hey, it was about 95 degrees in the sun!) refilled my water bottle and went back out for another 45 minutes or so. Figured I did about 10 miles total. I hit the same trails I did before and STILL managed to take a few wrong turns. Just when you think it’s time to jump off one trail and switch to another, your new trail winds back around and connects with the original trail you were on meaning, yeah, you just made yet another circle.

It was great though. Never once thought about my pace. Never once heard the usual urban sound of traffic, or had to deal with stoplights or drivers who aren’t watching for runners, or avoid speedy cyclists who think they’re the shit. Because they’re not the shit. Trail running is the shit.

I quickly and enthusiastically exchanged messaged with a few of my “trail running friends” (who are also unknowingly my trail running mentors and coaches) and told them that I finally see why they run trails. I understand. I get it now! I’m sold. And I’m in it for the long haul, so move aside Frodo, and thanks for doing so, enjoy the rest of your walk.

Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Minneapolis Running and Yahoo! Entertainment. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards. Mark lives in Minneapolis with his wife and daughter.

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Ragnar Great River 2018: An Ultra Running Experience

August 19, 2018

An Ultra Ragnar can be defined with two words: completely unnecessary. A regular Ragnar is hard enough. 15-18 miles of running over a weekend, broken into three legs with little to no sleep, packed into a pair of vans with 11 other runners. Dealing with heat and humidity and nighttime running in the wee hours. Why would anyone want to make that twice as bad?

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But because we were all Ragnar veterans, we figured we could run twice the miles with half the team. Easily! (it wasn’t east at all) One van instead of two. Six runners instead of twelve. 30-35 miles of running apiece, with no chance to stop and sleep. No chance to stop for a meal. Running and driving all the way through for 203 miles. No time to park and gather sleeping bags to bed down for a few hours. Try to sleep in the van if you can. Eat whatever you manage to gather, and the team never eats together, except the final dinner the night before the race and some pizza and cheesecake at the end! Make the most of what you have.

It was the toughest thing I’ve ever accomplished, both physically and mentally.

My distances were 13.2 miles, 14.3 miles and 10.1 miles. 37.6 miles in total, in a period of  36 hours. Two runs took place in mid-day 85 degree heat, the 14.3 was a 1:00am run in a cool, thick fog. I slogged through all these distances, at a much slower pace than I normally run, dealing with some pretty steep hills and winding roads and some pretty bad heat. But despite the challenge of the heat and hills, the toughest part of the race were the miles. So many miles. Just miles and miles and miles of running that never seemed to end. And then more miles and even more miles. It just went on and on and on.

39278299_10100425250482004_8868768387161915392_nThere were times I wanted to quit and just walk my way to the finish. There were many times I DID walk, to catch my breath and lower my heart rate, or to help myself climb a steep hill. I had every pocket packed with nutrition and salt tablets and gels (even a small zip-lock bag filled with pickles) but I could not have completed this mileage without a fantastic team, The Ultra Butter squad, stopping every few miles to refill my fluids, dump a cold bottle of water over my head, or just cheer me on.

Double the Training

Training for an ultra Ragnar was a bit different than training for a regular Ragnar. When training for a normal Ragnar, where my total distance might be 15 or 17 miles, I would run an average of 20 miles a week. Sometimes as little as 15 a week, and usually no more than 25. And my longest distance was maybe 10 or 12 miles. If you can run 10 miles at once you can handle a Ragnar.

But an ultra is a different story. Double the mileage meant double the training. I peaked at 45 miles a week and once I started building my distances, never did less than 25 a week and would do back to back weekend long runs to mimic my actual distances. 13 miles on Saturday morning followed by 14 miles the following Sunday morning.

At first I thought of training as if I were running a marathon, but I quickly decided it made no sense to run distances of 18 or 20 miles on a Saturday and then rest on Sunday. Ragnar would be nothing like that in terms of distance or rest periods. Better to train for how you’d run the race and I found back to back long runs to be a great way to train.

8 months of training. Over 800 miles ran in every type of condition, including rain, heat and snow. By the time I got to Rangar, my mind and body were ready!

 

 

The Race to Top All Races

The race got underway at 5:30am Friday morning with Peder running both legs 1 and 2 for an opening stint of over 15 miles. This would be the longest run of Peder’s life and he was able to glide on through that first exchange point and hand off to Corinne at the start of the third leg. It was kind of cool at the first exchange to see the other teams look around in confusion as Peder flew through the chute without handing off to another runner and just keep going. Everyone else was handing off to their next runner so who were these turkeys who just kept running? “Oh, they must be an ultra team,” people would say. A few times random runners would come up to me to tell me how insane we were to be running an ultra. And outside of running, people often tell me that running Ragnar is crazy, but when other Ragnar runners are telling me that I’m crazy I know I’m in uncharted territory. It makes you feel like a bit of a badass but you also realize you’re doing something potentially dangerous (and definitely unnecessary).

39441989_10216867606140124_9128341186736553984_nCorinne took the bracelet from Peder and ran her first leg of about 11 miles as the sun started to come out and bring the heat. While standing at the exchange after leg 4, next to those railroad tracks and that huge smokestack, I began to think about the heat. I hate running in the heat, but had been training in it for months.

Not really understanding what I was getting into, I started to get nervous for not really my first run, which would be a half marathon, but the following two runs which would amount to nearly an additional full marathon. Sure, it felt cool to impress other teams with our ambition, but deep down I was worried that my legs and body simply would not allow me to get through the miles. Would the heat get to me and knock me out? Would my legs just shutdown? Would I get injured and be forced out of the race?

None of those things happened to me, but unfortunately our third runner Denise, one of the strongest runners I know, finished her 15 mile leg, handed off to Troy at the first major exchange, and then started limping. “I felt something pop,” she said as we handed her water and Gatorade.

“What do you mean?”

“In my foot,” she explained as she limped towards the van. “I’ll need to go to the First Aid tent.” Right away I told myself to think positive and hope it was only a minor sprain that would fix itself by the next time Denise would have to run again, in roughly 9 or 10 hours. But my realistic brain knew we needed to start thinking about running the rest of the distance with just 5 runners.39344118_10216871722523031_4897832712670281728_n

How would this be possible? “We’ll figure it out,” Peder said. “Let’s just get through these next few miles and see what they say at the First Aid tent.” But in the meantime, our driver Ali, plus Corinne and Amanda tended to Denise, iced her foot and got her ankle taped up while I prepared for my first run.

As I got ready to head to the chute and take the bracelet from Troy, Amanda emerged from the van and told me, “It’s bad. I don’t think she’s going to be able to run.” And I thought crap. Denise is one of the toughest and most determined people I know and if anyone tells her she is not going to be able to run it would probably just strengthen her resolve. Yet if an injury forced Denise out of the race, I knew that injury would have to be serious. I figured best case is Denise skips her next leg and rests for about 18 hours or so and is able to run her last leg.

Couldn’t think about it now because here comes Troy so into the chute and out I go for a 13.2 mile run in 2:00pm 85 degree heat – 5 miles up one of the tallest, steepest hills of the course (on loose gravel) plus an 8 mile journey along un-shaded blacktop. It was as terrible as it sounds and by the time I finished and handed off to Amanda, I was completely dehydrated. Mouth dry, body unable to produce any sweat, legs and body just shot, flaked bits of salt speckling my face and legs. Nothing to do now but re-hydrate, clean up and rest for the next leg.

“How is Denise?” I remember asking someone after my first leg only to hear the worst news. “She’s done.”

Well then how are we going to finish an ultra Ragnar with only 5 runners?

It turned out to be a stress fracture. 6 weeks in a boot at least. I knew Denise was devastated. I certainly would have been if I had trained as much as she did only to get injured on my first leg. I also knew Denise would not want us to quit the race because she was hurt. We were already a third of the way through and if we could figure out how to cover the last of Denise’s legs, we’d be able to finish.

When I finally had the chance to talk to Denise we hugged, because there were just no words. This was the fourth Ragnar we’ve done together. I know how hard she trains and knew, even before I talked to her, how disappointed she was. I told her I didn’t know what to say, and that nothing I could say would make it better. Just no words. The 15 miles she ran on her first leg was as much as any of the other runners would do throughout all of Ragnar! But she wasn’t training for that, she was going for a full 35. I knew no one felt worse about her injury than she did. She felt like she had let us down but I told her Ragnar was a team event and that the team would pull together and figure this out.

 

 

So that’s exactly what we did. Our driver Ali, who had brought running shoes and clothes just in case, suited up for a 4 miler* while Peder, Corinne, Amanda and Troy took on additional miles. That meant four of us would be running at least 35 mile in total with Amanda taking on an amazing 42 miles – the most she had ever run. The most ANY of us had ever run.

“Are we going to be able to do this thing?” Denise asked me a little while later. I honestly didn’t know because we were one small injury away from a DNF. And we needed to hold it together for another 125 miles!! This was no joke. The sun was starting to set but it was still hot and the weather called for more hot sun the following day.

The goal became to just finish the race no matter how slow we had to go. Walk/run, drink tons of water, stop and sit down if you have to. But just finish.

39441986_10216880926593127_6591340550866075648_nAli had been driving for hours and needed a break so I took over for awhile, then Peder. We made it through our night miles. We stopped often to refill water and check in on the runners. We slept when we could. Denise took over navigation duties while Ali got back in the driver’s seat. I ran my 14.3 miles at night. It was cool and foggy and I was in the middle of nowhere. The physical run was tough but this one put a lot of stress on my mind. At one point I started seeing things: shadows moving in the night, van lights shining into the fog, the reflection of headlamps and blinking tail lights in my glasses. A badger would run towards me and I’d jump out of the way only to realize it was just a passing shadow.  A bird would swoop by and I’d duck only to realize it was just my headlamp reflecting into the fog. I had to convince myself that I was just seeing shadows and reflection. I had to recognize I needed to take control of my mind. I basically had to talk myself out of going crazy.

But I finished that leg, finally, and then took my shoes off and stepped into the St. Croix River. The warm water felt great around my sore feet. I got back in the van and tried to sleep. I think I did.

39752066_10216887428875680_2772321825298841600_nWe cycled through the rest of our legs, mile after mile, hill after grueling hill. With the hot sun rising and beating down on us throughout Saturday afternoon, I summoned every ounce of guts I had left for my third run, and pushed through a 10.1 mile journey into downtown St. Paul. That was a tough one. Heat, sun, hills and fatigue all put together into one last run. I got a little emotional near the end realizing that we were close to finishing. Thinking about all the training I had done, all the wishes of encouragement from my friends and family, the positive thoughts I carried, that feeling that I can do more than I think I can.

I felt tremendous pride making it through my 37.6 miles. I reached the end of my last leg, handed the slap bracelet off to Amanda for the final leg of our journey and collapsed into the grass. I really felt it at that point. The pain, the triumph, the relief at being done. As I caught my breath and my team gathered around to pour cold water over me I looked up at them and realized they were the reason I had made it through.

“Have you lost weight since the last time we saw you?” Denise asked. Which was roughly two hours earlier. The answer was probably yes, around 3 or 4 pounds of pure fluids.

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Roughly two hours later, we gathered at the end as Amanda completed her last leg (a half marathon in sweltering afternoon heat!) and trotted through the finish line.

 

 

Now That It’s All Over

Ragnar taught me I can run when I’m sore, I can run when I’m tired, I can run when I don’t feel like running, in extreme heat or in the middle of the night, but when I run in these conditions, I can still have a great run. Apply this to any aspect of life. You can work when you don’t feel well, or be a parent when you’re tired, or take care of something you don’t feel like taking care of. And you can still do it well.

But Ultra Ragnar taught me I can do much more than I ever thought I was capable of, and that the people around me can also do more than they think. Can push themselves in directions they never expected to achieve. And that the people around you, your teammates and friends are the ones you need to make it possible.

People often ask me, “Why do you do these crazy races, Mark? WHY?!!?” This is not about setting goals, or achieving the things you set out to do, though those are a big factors. It’s not about teamwork, even though teamwork is the key to Ragnar.

It’s about being that person you never thought you could be. But more importantly, it’s  about the people that running brings into your life. I still have friends who I met 5 Ragnars ago. And even though I don’t see them as much as I’d like to, it’s these crazy races that have brought all these crazy people into my life. And because of that, I am better off.

But this Ultra Ragnar business….?? There is no way I’m ever doing it again. That shit was completely unnecessary.

*At the finish line we informed race officials that we used a 7th runner Ali to cover one of Denise’s legs and they awarded Ali a medal and a T-shirt.

Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Minneapolis Running and Yahoo! Entertainment. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards. Mark lives in Minneapolis with his wife and daughter


Insane Runner Joins 11 Strangers for Ragnar Washington, D.C.

September 19, 2016

14333154_10210563004649027_5190930584774944308_nThat insane runner would be me. I caught the bug, I did. I caught the Ragnar Bug. It’s real. Having just completed Ragnar Great River a few weeks prior, I decided I couldn’t wait a whole year until the next Great River, and hopped on a plane to Washington D.C. to join a group of runners I had never met before and run in one of their empty slots. I was already in Ragnar shape, and the flight was cheap, around $160 if I remember, so I figured why not? It would be worth it for the story alone. And that story is unfolding before you at this very moment…

In the weeks leading up to this race, many people asked me how this situation came about. Here we are up in Minnesota, where the summer is turning to fall and we’re starting to heat up our cider and rant about the proliferation of Pumpkin Spice Everything. Who is  thinking about flying across the country to run in a race at a time like this? Why are you doing this, Mark McGinty? What in the pumpkin spiced hell is wrong with you?

I realized I had a chance to run Ragnar Washington D.C. upon learning my wife had a convention in town the same weekend. Well heck, if she’s going to DC and Ragnar DC just happens to be that same weekend I might as well tag along, do some running, and catch up with you later in the weekend!

14368757_10103236101079369_2270331408348723141_nBut I had no team. No problem. Just go to the Facebook page of any random Ragnar race, post that you are available to join a team and wait for the responses to hit your inbox. I had 5 within 24 hours. All from teams that had lost a runner due to an injury, or a scheduling conflict, or a whatever. I found one team, The Misfit Toys, that would be passing through Bethesda on the morning of the race and could swing by and pick me up at my hotel. Done deal. Bought a cheap plane ticket, packed my stuff, and headed out Thursday night.

What was I most concerned about? Surprisingly to some, I was not worried about joining a team with 11 strangers. I wasn’t worried about team dynamics or being in a van with 5 people that I could potentially hate. How could I hate a Ragnar runner? We’re in a class by ourselves, a group of common crazies who understands that inner insanity that we all possess. Getting along with my vanmates would happen naturally. I wasn’t worried about that at all. What I was more concerned about were the logistics of m14292373_10210296728605789_1775997315485474327_neeting up with the team. I was traveling across country, taking the Metro to a hotel somewhere, trying to eek out a few hours sleep. I was also worried about my nutrition, as my regular eating and hydration routine would be out of whack, and about running on terrain I didn’t know. But those things would be dealt with as they came up. First thing was getting there and grabbing at least four hours of sleep (I was able to get almost exactly that).

And to make matters a bit more complicated: my in-laws decided to meet us in Washington, D.C.

Now, not to say anything negative about them, because I think they are great and I always enjoy their company. But it was another variable in a long list of variables that one doesn’t usually encounter before Ragnar. But they are understanding, so when I reached the hotel and found them waiting in the lobby, they both received a quick hug before I announced that I was heading directly to bed.

“Now do you need a ride to the race in the morning?” my ever-so-generous father in law asked at 11:30pm in the lobby of the Bethesda Double Tree.

“I do, but that’s taken care of.”

“Because it’s no problem. I can give you a ride.”

Adorable – he didn’t know about Ragnar. “Well the starting line is about a two hour drive,” I said, “Somewhere in outer Maryland near Montana or something.”

His eyes bugged out. “Two hours??? What IS this race?”

I held my smile and nodded. “I’ll tell you all about it….” And so I headed off to the elevator as he followed and I explained just exactly what I had gotten myself into.

14333815_10103236100420689_7244163038226556920_nThe next morning I met the team. As I sat on a sidewalk in the early morning somewhere around 4:45am, a familiar gray van pulled up to the Double Tree. This was either a Ragnar van or a creeper van but when Joe and Paul hopped out to grab my luggage, I knew I was good to go. Kelly was driving, Jules was in the seat behind her and in the back were Karl and Anna. We said polite hellos as I climbed into the van, made small talk, light jokes and within 20 minutes I fell asleep. I can’t tell you what part of Maryland we were in (I mean, I can NOW but at the time I had no idea where we were). Funniest thing though…I quickly learned that no one in Van 1 knew anyone from Van 2. We were a combination team. Two 6-person teams merged together into a 12-person monster by the power of the Ragnar gods. It was unusual. I’ve done Ragnar before and you always know at least one or two people from the other van, if not all of them. I had never done one of these fusion deals. It turned out to work just fine. Van 2 met us at the starting line and at every exchange and of course at the finish. If you only have a team of 6, one of these arrangements works quite well!

14390713_10210296736605989_4818202826431012372_nThe rest of the story you know. Grueling runs, stinky vans, short rest. The usual challenge. The terrain was much tougher than Great River, at least those first legs. Almost everyone in our van had a massive hill with rocky terrain and narrow roads. Massive meaning that the biggest hills in Great River would be bunny hills compared to these. 750 foot climbs, 11 degree elevation which makes for a tough run on the way up but a thrilling sprint on the way down. I had one of my fastest, most exhilarating runs on the downside of Leg 3, after reaching to top of that sumbitch hill.

I just want to say that Leg 3 was also witness to one of the great water refills in Ragnar history. I was on the opposite side of the highway from the van and Joe called out and asked if I needed water. I did, so I threw my empty water bottle across the road, which he caught like a wide receiver and then carried as he sprinted to the van. I’m still running so Joe quickly refills the bottle, tosses it forward to Paul who then runs it across the highway and hands it to me. Flawless execution.

14355085_10210561526692079_99776847343725987_nA lot of really cool things happened during this race that I wasn’t expecting. We saw an engagement proposal at the first major exchange which was greeted with a swarm of photos and cheering from the other runners. I ate in a cafe I would have otherwise never have seen, bought sweets at a bakery renowned for its pie I guess, and saw farms, hills and scenery that I otherwise would never have seen.

And after Van 1 finished our final legs and Van 2 took over for the final push into DC, Paul and Kelly (our driver) invited Van 1 into their home to use their laundry and showers. Their hospitality was superb and very much appreciated. Knowing I would have to travel back to a hotel on the Metro and would have to figure out a laundry situation was another unwelcome situation but Paul and Kelly were so generous in allowing me to mess up their stuff. I certainly felt right at home!

Which brings me to what is always the best part about Ragnar: your teammates. You can’t 14291922_10154681093549742_4231655280850834278_nsurvive Ragnar without your teammates and good teammates make Ragnar great. I had great teammates. Joe, Paul and Kelly had the whole thing under control and were experts at getting us to the next exchange and keeping us on track. Whatever you needed you could get. “Hey, can we stop for coffee?” “Sure!” “Hey, can we drive through DC so I can get some tourist shots?” “No problem!”

Great tour guides, I had, and this out-of-towner was able to capture those required shots of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and other such sights that folks in Minnesota would almost demand.

14344121_10210563006969085_6122346385917529116_nThere was friendly banter among all of us throughout the race and I was able to form genuine bonds with Karl, Jules, Anna, Joe, Paul and Kelly, even though we were only together for less than 40 hours. By the end of the race, after a very cool finale through the streets of Washington, D.C. and a few beers gulped at the finish line, it was time to say goodbye. We all exchanged happy handshakes and hugs, with plenty of “great meeting yous!” and “let’s do this agains!” They dropped me off on a street corner near the Metro, just as they had picked me up from a street corner only hours before.

The hardest part of Ragnar is not the running, nor the constant fatigue, or the heat, or the stinky vans. The hardest part is saying goodbye to your team. 14369931_10210561569533150_6873893513285442531_nLeaving a sweaty dreamworld filled with water bottles and reflective vests and returning to everyday life, a life that seams surreal and unimportant in those minutes immediately following your final goodbye leads to a bit of a bummer. The Ragnar Blues, I call it. That feeling you get after preparing for weeks and weeks, living in the thick of the race for nearly two straight days and having it suddenly come to an end. People, “civilians”, don’t seem to relate to what you’ve been through. All you have are your memories, and a nod from your teammate, a quick text or email, maybe a Facebook post from your van captain that proclaims the promise to do it again soon.

And do it again I will.

Now enjoy these photos…(click to enlarge)

 

Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Minneapolis Running and Yahoo! Entertainment. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards. Mark lives in Minneapolis with his wife and daughter. 

 

 

 

 


Ragnar Great River 2016: A Bit of a Detour

August 14, 2016
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Best team name of 2016

Road closures, rain, sunny skies, clouds, ants, road kill, mud, the locals. A bit of everything this year. Except for a storm that passed through Friday afternoon and drenched the course, and a significant detour early on, Ragnar 2016 was one of the best races you could ask for. Sure, it was hot at times, and running in the rain can be tough, but never once did anyone complain. We embraced the challenges, worked through them, and as all good Ragnar squads do, we bonded and conquered.

The big news happened the night before Van 1 even departed for Winona. As I struggled to sleep knowing I’d have to get up around 1:30am to meet the van crew at 2:00am to begin our 2-hour drive to the starting line for a freakin’ 5:15am start I took a break from lying sleeplessly and checked my phone. I was greeted with a most ominous email from Ragnar marked URGENT!
Bracing for bad news, I closed my eyes, took a breath and opened the email. I was shocked to read the following sentence “Due to flooding and road closures, we are unable to run Legs 5-9.”Email

“No!!!!!!” I cried out. Unable to run? Unable to run?!!?? This means five of our 12 runners will be unable to run their first leg! Oh, the disappointment they’d all feel when they’d learn this news. This screws up everything! Ragnar is ruined! I set my phone down. I sat up. I thought. I came to a quick conclusion. This only affects 5 out of 36 legs and there is plenty of Ragnar after leg 9. We’ll deal with it and make it work. Once we get back into the normal flow, and after several hours and miles are behind us, we will forget all about this little detour. We just need to figure out what we’re going to do about it.

Here’s is how it all went down: a huge storm passed through western Wisconsin the day before, with around 4 inches of rain that resulted in flooding and damage to roads and crops. A stretch of about 30 miles of roads were rendered un-runnable. We’d be able to run legs 1-4 and would hand off to Van 2 somewhere off the course then go into a 4.5 hour hold. Once the hold expired, Van 2 would resume running at leg 10 and the rest of the race would continue as planned. Simple, except that 5 runners had their legs cancelled – a huge disappointment when you train and prepare yourself for months to run three times in roughly 32 hours. The solution was that cancelled runners could double up with someone else and get their first of three runs in. It would work out. It did work out.

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Look at those happy 2:00am faces!

I was worried that the team wouldn’t feel so positive but once we met up at a local Target at 2:00am and decided our strategy, we felt pretty good. Logistically it would be different than a traditional Ragnar, but only for 5 legs, and is there anything about Ragnar that is traditional in the first place? No, Ragnar is insane. And every race is different. Running is about following a plan, but it’s also a game of making adjustments. Altering your stride because of a slight pain. Pausing for water earlier than you thought. Speeding your pace because you feel extra good. Catching your breath. Pausing to stretch. Or scrapping a run altogether because you feel sick. Backup plans, adjustments, do-overs, bad runs. It’s all part of the game.

So an urgent message form Ragnar saying legs 5-9 have been cancelled?  Well, it would make things interesting and would add one more challenge to an already enormous undertaking but we’d get it done.

In the end, the closure of those 5 legs was a minor detail that resulted in a lot of positive outcomes. More time with vans to intermingle during the 4.5 hour hold. More time to explore the communities and meet the locals. A chance to double up and run with partners and pursue a non-traditional Ragnar experience.

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John bug sprays Abbey before leg #2

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Denise arrives at exchange #1 in a blur

Some of us got to run with a teammate. John and Abbey ran leg 2 together and I jumped into leg #4 and ran with Drew. Van 2 had three of their first legs cancelled so their first three runners partnered up with their last three. By the time both vans had gone through twelve runners and Van 2 handed off to Van 1 at Stockholm (home of the Olympics – ok, that’s an inside joke for Van 1)….once the handoff occurred and leg #13 started, everything was back to normal.

Except that the sky opened and it started pouring. It had been raining during leg #12 when Jill and Luke doubled up on that leg but once leg #13 started it was a downpour and Denise was running right in the middle of it. She ended up clocking a very fast time, unhindered by the rain, but it was coming down hard. So hard that we considered going into a delay and waiting it out before starting Abbey on leg #14. But as Denise arrived at the next exchange it was down to a modest drizzle and Abbey continued as planned (realizing as we all did, that it was considered night running conditions and that she’d need her vest, headlamp and butt-light). So Denise arrived at the exchange but Abbey was nowhere to be found because we were all at the van scrambling to get all of Abbey’s extra accessories in order. Total amateurs!

Once the rain passed, the temperature was PERFECT for running and we still had plenty of Ragnar to go. It is fair to say this was the easiest Ragnar I’ve done? Easy is not the right word because a 200-mile relay on limited sleep is always a mental and physical challenge no matter the conditions. But that temperature was just right. In terms of pacing, 2016 was by far my fastest Ragnar, beating the sweltering last year by almost a full minute per mile, and beating my previous best time by almost 30 seconds per mile. So in terms of personal Ragnar timing, this one was a PR. Overall I ran for 2 hours and 50 minutes broken out over 3 legs, and our team took almost exactly 32 hours to finish, which includes that 4.5 hour hold (which you should count since it accounts for those 5 runners who had to double up).

So in terms of running, this was a fairly fast, fairly easygoing Ragnar. Some parts sucked. I had more hills in leg 2 than I as anticipating but still hit my goal pace exactly, and I mean exactly to the exact second. Aside from the running, team chemistry was terrific and makes a huge difference in the overall experience. The camaraderie in each van, and even across vans was strong. Van 1 had a great time. Excellent banter in the van, lots of joking around, great teamwork. An overall positive feeling the whole time. In Van 2, everyone could tell that crew was partying and getting along just fine. Good vibes across the board which only makes the race that much easier on the soul.

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John “approves” Abbey’s hand-off to Terri.

Van 1 had four Ragnar vets plus two rookies. Drew, John and me ran Ragnar 2013 together and Denise was with the gang the following year. Newbies Abbey and Terri, our mother-daughter duo, rounded out the rest of the van. In Van 2 you had Laurie, one Tim, another Tim, and Luke, all vets from years past plus Jill and last-minute addition Amanda who filled in for a last minute drop-out (thank you Amanda for saving Ragnar!). And Van 2 was lucky to have a driver Greg who eased the burden on the rest of the team. I’ve done Ragnar four times and have always had to share driving duties so I don’t know what it’s like to have a designated driver present – but I’ve heard it’s quite the treat!

When it comes to describing team chemistry I have no idea where to begin. How do you mention everyone and every inside joke, every personal challenge, every humorous exchange or bond that was formed? You can’t. There is so much about Ragnar that you simply don’t see. When you’re on your runs, bonding takes place in the van that you never know about. While you’re asleep, whether your van is on a break or you’re catching some Z’s along the road, the banter continues and though you’re right there in the middle of it, there are things that you miss.

What you are left with is a mishmash of feelings and memories, highlights, photos, stories.  You all have your own. Here are some of mine…

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Two running buddies brave the blacktop

I didn’t know how I’d feel about doubling up and running with a teammate. To me running has usually been a solo affair, a time for solitude, to run at my own pace with my own music on the route of my choice. Selfish indeed, but in a world of careers and parenthood one rarely gets a chance to be their own master. Running has always been my time. So running with a friend is always a rare occasion. But when I doubled up with Drew and we ran leg #4 together, I had a great run which ended up being one of my favorite parts of Ragnar. Other than having someone there to share his water and talk me through the never-ending hill and the sunny, hot blacktop, there was his pursuit of the slow kill that kept my mind engaged. When we started there was a single runner up ahead, a good quarter mile away whose distance opened as we ran. I figured she’d eventually disappear far ahead of us but Drew insisted she would tire and we would catch up to her eventually. As our 6.6 mile route wore on, we did indeed begin to draw closer and closer until the endless hill at the second half of the leg eventually took its toll on that determined runner and we outpaced and passed her with a friendly “good job”…or something like that.

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Stillwater: The Big Sleep

Then there was The Big Sleep. One thing about Ragnar that always amazes me is that gym, packed with hundreds of tired runners from wall to wall, silent as can be. Eerie. You tiptoe into the gym, arrange your sleeping bag near your mates and settle down for a few hours of sleep. Denise, Drew, Terri and I were grouped together somewhere in a Stillwater school gym, sometime around midnight knowing Van 2 would arrive in a few short hours. We had all been up since around 1:30 the previous morning so we were nearing the 24 hour point and of course there was a guy snoring like he was in some cartoon. An almost comical snore if it weren’t for the fact that we desperately needed sleep. Denise thought it was me. Terri covered her ears with a towel. Drew threw a penny at him. Eventually we passed out. Van 2 was there soon enough and we quickly awoke, splashed water onto our faces and ran on.

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Seymour

A cool thing about the little delay and 4.5 hour hold was that the vans got to hang out together. Instead of just handing off and saying see ya later, Van 1 stayed with Van 2 after the hold and following along during their three legs. They had some inside joke about pickles that I never figured out. And Greg the driver managed to get his own kills. One of them became Mr. T and I ate some of Greg’s potato chips. In fact, the entire race was pretty much nonstop eating for me, included an excellent burger at a dive bar in Alma that contained some very interesting characters, like this keyboard player wearing ice skates (Denise had a strange character in a coffee shop down the road but they seemed to treat me just fine).

There isn’t much more I can say about my new friends that can’t be said in the photos below. So I’ll end it with this collection of great moments from a great Ragnar. Click each for a larger image!

And here are some write-ups from Ragnars past…

2013: My Best Running Experience Ever

2014: Another Fantastic Run!

2015: The Heat is On

And here they are in their entirety….The Stench Awakens….

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Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Cigar City Magazine and Yahoo! Entertainment. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards.


Ragnar Great River 2015: The Heat is On

August 16, 2015

109Heat was the story at the 2015 Great River Ragnar. Heat, heat, heat. Hot, hot, hot. Blacktop, blacktop, blacktop. Every runner at every exchange talked about the heat, worried about the heat, hydrated for the heat and RAN through a heat index that reached 109F on wide open, sun-fried blacktop. Not a cloud in the sky and a blazing August sun standing pat right above you as you toiled through 4 or 6 or 9 miles sweating and shivering and begging for shade. It was as tough and as awful as it sounds, but we finished with just an hour to spare. I’ve run Ragnar three times now and 2015 was easily the hottest, wettest, smelliest, most challenging 200-mile relay I’ve done, and I intend to do many more.

This was my first year organizing the team, along with co-captain and Ragnar veteran Emily (who ended up with the cool captain’s trucker hat that I became more and more envious of as the race wore on). We had both run our first Ragnar on the same team two years ago and took it upon ourselves to put together a team and guide them through the race. The rest of the runners consisted of 10 rookies. Rookies who were fit for Ragnar. Ultra-runners, martial artists, marathoners, half-marathoners, ex-Marines, and a handful of casual runners who had a 10k or two under the belt. A solid group. Enthusiasm and excitement all around and we weren’t worried.Captn

One thing to expect in involving yourself in an insane 200-mile run like Ragnar is that things won’t always go as planned. Surprises will happen and the team will have to improvise and make adjustments along the way. People get sick, people get hurt, people get cranky. It happens every year. This year it happened a few days before we embarked when one of our runners suddenly dropped out the Monday before the race. Due to his situation, this was absolutely the right thing for him to do but we were now one person short with 4 days until the race. We knew that recruiting someone would be difficult, especially when the response you get when describing Ragnar is an exasperated, “Why would anyone ever want to do THAT?!”

So all of us started working our networks. We reached out to Ragnar team members from previous years, runners and athletes that we knew from the gym, or the office, or the neighborhood. No luck. It was now Tuesday and knowing we’d need someone to commit by Thursday or else, we gave ourselves 48 hours to find a replacement or face the reality of running Ragnar as an 11-person team. One van of 6 and one semi-ultra van of 5, with 3 runners picking up an extra leg apiece while the remaining 2 would take on increased driving and navigating duties.

KillsThe members of that possible 5-person van (Van 2) not only started to convince themselves that they’d be able to run as 5, but actually began to get excited for the added challenge. This was a surprise to me as I thought there would be a hint of panic over losing a runner. When that wasn’t the case and the team only rose to the challenge, I got even more excited for Ragnar than I already was. Having an enthusiastic team is crucial to a good race and I knew I had a team of crazy beasts.

I believed it would be possible for 5 runners to fight their way through the additional miles, we had a strong and enthusiastic squad in place, however, as forecasts of 90-plus temperatures began to roll in and having prior knowledge of how things tend to go (factoring in injuries and fatigue) Emily and I knew we badly needed to find that 12th. An 11-person team was entirely doable as there are teams that run Ragnar with as little as 6 runners, but it would leave us no margin for injuries or runner sickness. A team of 11 made us consider the possibility of losing a runner on course and having to conquer the 200 miles with 10 runners. 10 runners taking approximately 20 miles each in mid-90’s heat was not something the rest of the team was ready for, and something we were not willing to risk. But as time began to run out we started to consider that possibility and began assigning the unassigned legs to the brave volunteers of Van 2.

Starting LineBy Wednesday, we were fortunate to have found a replacement. Marathon-trained and “I’ve-always-been-curious-about-Ragnar” Jamie joined us and two days later we set off with a full team of 12. The addition of Jamie proved to be crucial in completing the race during what ended up being the hottest weekend of the summer. Not only was Jamie one of the fastest and most reliable runners on the team, his addition allowed the team to rest as needed, and to continue with the original race plan. Gary, who had dropped out, was referred to as “our corporate sponsor” since he had already paid and we made sure to keep him in mind as we ran this hot, damn race. I doubt that we would have completed the race before the 9:00pm cutoff with only 11 runners. But enough about the heat!

1st ExchangeMeeting up with Van 1 at the first major exchange was a high point in the race, even though Van 2 hadn’t started. Ingrid and Megan told us about their hot, challenging runs in 100F+ tempertures, Emily checked in on race logistics and plans for the next exchange (while showing off her hat and making me jealous once again) all while Andie and Calli and the rest of Van 2 laughed and danced with the blaring music and took photos and celebrated being on the course while we waited for Luke to reach the exchange. I think I drank about 4 bottles of water under that blazing sun and both my shirt and bandana were soaked with sweat before I ran a single step. I know, enough about the heat, but oh man, the heat, the heat, the heat!

Exchange 4Luke crossed the exchange, soaked with sweat and warning us of a rather warm challenge ahead and we were ready to roll so we fist bumped and high-fived our way back to our vans and departed for our first legs.

The first of two very tense moments of the race occurred when Van 2 nearly rolled while making a sharp turn up a steep hill. We were coming around a corner on one of the winding uphill gravel roads along Leg #9, making a very sharp turn up a steep incline when the soft dirt on the side of the road gave way and the van tilted way too far to the right, far enough where it felt like we were just about to tip over. A totally unseen hazard that would have hit the next van to attempt that tight turn. It just so happened to be us.

Have you ever tipped over while sitting in something? Be it a chair or a canoe or a sailboat? You know that feeling when you start to tip one direction, you’re tipping, tipping and your momentum slows to a near halt and you sort of balance in mid air, only to speed up and cross the tipping point where gravity wins and finally pulls you down? When our van rounded the corner and the dirt gave way, we tipped right and hung there at the brink, in the balance, all of us instinctively and very quietly leaning to the left wondering where momentum would take us. A totally powerless and very frightening feeling. “ Nobody move,” I think someone whispered, or maybe I just imagined it. We hung there, seemingly for several seconds, until gravity released its grip, just a bit, and the van seemed to regain its balance but was still leaning dangerously to the right with a steep drop off just below.

In those few seconds while we lingered at the tipping point, my first thought was that 5 or 6 very strong bodies would soon appear beside our van and hold us up, preventing us from tipping over. My next thought was that once we spilled and landed hard on our side, Ragnar would be over and we’d have a whole new challenge ahead of us. From shattered windows and injured bodies to a nasty and difficult cleanup effort and a runner who was still on course and far ahead of us, sweating and overheating, having no idea what had just taken place. Not to mention an incredible traffic jam that a flipped van would have created and the mess of insurance and medical bills that would need to be sorted out. All of these thoughts in just a few seconds.

“Back up,” Jamie said from the back seat and Laurie slowly and very precisely did exactly that. As we started to move backward I braced myself for a roll but the van slowly balanced itself and leveled off as we backed away from the perilous corner. Then Laurie masterfully backed the van completely clear of the hazard, kicked it into drive, wound far around that very same corner and continued to bring us safely up the hill. We had survived! And were now ultra conscious of the terrain. We hardly spoke of the near catastrophe, calmly nodding to ourselves that we did not in fact roll, and were moving forward towards the next exchange. But my adrenaline was running in high gear, and as I was the next runner on the course, I tried to let the excitement carry over into my run but the heat, oh my god, the heat.

Flags109F read the temperature gauge inside the van. It was cool and comfortable inside, with the AC blasting and plenty of water but the instant you opened the door to the outside you were hit with a blast of heat that felt like you had just opened an oven to check on the baking cookies. Every runner had their own challenges in running in that heat. From steep hills, to blacktop surfaces, to a low water supply, to a blazing sun with shade nowhere in sight. I had a flat 1st leg (Runner #10) with a wide open road, no shade, and constant sun. For about 10 seconds a teeny, tiny cloud moved in front of the sun and gave me a moment of relief but it was a nasty tease as the cloud quickly moved away and the fireball reappeared, seemingly hotter than it had been just seconds ago.

This heat killed my time and I finished more than 20 minutes later than I expected. Extrapolate that difference among 12 runners and we were quickly very far from our target pace and slowly in jeopardy of finishing the race before the 9:00pm cutoff the following day.

DuskDusk arrived, the temperature cooled, reflective vests came out and everyone got into night-mode. Hoping that night running would help us get back on pace, some of us were helped when the sun went down but it was just as humid and nearly as hot. Running in 85 degrees is tough whether it’s day or night and so our times barely improved. By the time Van 1 began their final legs, we were busy calculating our expected finish time and realized if we didn’t pick up the pace, we risked a clean finish.

Ragnar officials informed all teams that due to the intense heat, teams could leapfrog a runner in order to finish by 9:00. This would mean driving a runner through their leg and starting them at the following exchange along with the next runner. Two runners would run simultaneously, so everyone would run three times, but you’d drive through an entire leg and double up on the next. It would save up to an hour of run time and not force anyone to run less than 3 legs. We saw a few teams doing this but we decided to try and finish the old-fashioned way.

SleepingVan 1Saturday was still hot but not nearly as hot as Friday. It meant that Friday’s heat was good training for the Saturday runs and both my Saturday times were great improvements over Friday’s and I nearly hit my goal pace both times (which I’m proud of since my goal times were personally aggressive even without the heat). Van 1 booked through their final legs and when we met up at the high school for the final van exchange, it was encouraging to see how enthusiastic the members of Van 1 were. They were happy their legs were over and greeted us with nothing but smiling faces and words of encouragement. It was getting close to 3:00. We had around 6 hours to run 30 miles in 95 degree heat. Could we do it? I had slept a total of about 45 minutes, so yeah, I could do it. Easily.

We ran as hard as we could which was no easy task in that heat. Our #7 runner Grace was off to a great start but when she crossed the exchange point we were suddenly faced with our second very intense moment. Upon finishing, Grace immediately collapsed to the ground and called my name. After helping her off the course and into the shade, I learned she had both injured her knee and was suffering from the heat. A double whammy. The race staff did little to help and I was happy we had a first aid kit. Grace needed ice for her knee and cold for her head. We rested her on her back in the shade and while Jamie elevated her legs, I tightened a makeshift ice-pack in place around her knee. Kathleen gave her water and talked to her while Gerald brought the van around so we could get Grace into the AC as soon as possible. We had to do this quickly as Laurie was on the course running in that same heat and I was worried that if we didn’t quickly catch up to her with hydration support we may have two downed runners.

GraceCheetahWe helped Grace into the back where she was able to rest and recover in the AC and it didn’t take long before Grace was up and talking, joking and generally being awesome. #beastmode When Gerald took over his final leg (#33) we realized the course markers were incorrect and were sending runners the wrong direction. When they were supposed to turn left and cross the bridge, they kept running along the trail, up to a mile out of the way with no rendezvous in sight. I’m talking about runners being sent in completely the wrong direction. The course turned sharp left but they were headed northeast. Jamie and I ran after them and were able to call to them from the bridge (the cowbell became a crucial tool!) and luckily get them to turn around but there were two runners who were too far away and couldn’t hear us. They were long gone and all we could do was alert the gathering vans that a guy in white and a girl in orange had missed the turn and were now greatly off course. It would likely cost those teams and we never knew what became of those lost runners – last I saw they were headed into South St. Paul. We couldn’t hang around to find out because we had to pick up Gerald and run our next three teammates.

I ran a great final leg. Hoping to run it in less than an hour but predicting I would come in around 1:05 I was ecstatic when I saw my final time was 57:15. Chalk it up to adrenaline and pure guts. Having Kathleen and Jamie run the final two legs secured a strong finish and we crossed the finish line as a team at roughly 8:15pm – an incredible finale that included an injured runner, an incorrect course marker and the epitome of teamwork. It was during those final legs when every member of Van 2 stepped up and helped push us through to the end.

ExchangeARunning has a tendency to take you to a place where you feel you have no possible way to succeed, yet you seem to find a way to pull it off. It’s a great feeling and one reason why many runners continue to run. That’s how those final legs felt in retrospect. An incredible villain named heat, a ticking bomb exploding at 9:00 and six underdogs fighting every obstacle to beat the clock and save the day. It never felt so good to cross the finish line – with plenty of time to spare. The after party was a happy collection of smiling faces, high-fives, triumphant photos and shared anecdotes between the vans over their favorite and sometimes least-favorite events of the race. Our rookies became veterans. Strangers became friends and bonds were strengthened among everyone. Many immediately committed to running Ragnar 2016 and even those who were only interested in running it one time departed with smiling faces and new friends.

You earn a medal when you finish Ragnar. Some will proudly display theirs in a place of prominence. Others will put them away along with their race accessories, dismissing talk of ultra races and focusing on races that better suit their style. But there was not a single member of The Fresh Sprints that will not look back fondly on this achievement. Despite the final whereabouts of their award, those medals were hard-earned. For some it was the most physically and mentally challenging thing they had ever done. For others it was merely a warmup for longer, more challenging races. Now that I’ve run three separate Ragnar positions, I figured I would pick a different spot each year until I have run all 12. It’s sort of my 12-year ultra goal. Running the entire Ragnar course, by myself, over a 12-year period. I should finish sometime before I turn 50 and hopefully I’ll still be able to run at that age. Those are lofty and ambitions dreams and surely will be filled with their own perils and triumphs. But those days are yet to come. I can only bask in the glory of the 2015 Ragnar which was without a doubt the most challenging Ragnar I’ve ever done, but also the most rewarding.

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Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Cigar City Magazine and Germ Warfare. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards.


2014 Great River Ragnar Relay: Another Fantastic Run!

August 17, 2014

My life has already been altered by the greatness that is the Ragnar Relay. Last year’s 2013 Great River was my first ever Ragnar experience and was an amazing, eye-opening adventure through Wisconsin and Minnesota that I gushed about over and over again right here.

2014 was different. I was no longer a rookie bracing for the unknown odyssey of multiple runs on short sleep, piles sweaty clothes and the camaraderie that develops among your van-mates. I knew what to expect. The sweaty clothes would be everywhere, gathering in little piles throughout the van. The runs would be long and tough, filled with hills and gravel and dust. I would be tired. The sun would be hot. I’d need to bring water and chews and an extra pair of shoes, baby wipes, a few towels, a bunch of bandanas, cell-phone and iPod chargers. And I’d need to get plenty of sleep. I knew all this stuff. I could predict almost hour by hour exactly what would happen. This was not new – at least, not for me.

What made Ragnar 2014 special was that we had five newbies on our team. Four were in my small crew, making Christine and I the veterans of our 6-person van. We had graduated from rookies to van captains and would be guiding four others through their first Ragnar experience. Chad, Dan, Denise and Kelly (and Rachel in Van 1) were recruited to fill open spots vacated by some of last year’s crew. The new folks had heard stories of Ragnars past, had seen the photos, had read the blog posts. But they, like me last year, really didn’t know what to expect. They’d be seeing it all for the first time, and their excitement and dedication made it feel as if I were doing it for the first time too.

Kelly is rewarded after finishing an amazing hill climb!

Kelly is rewarded after finishing an amazing hill climb!

I was so impressed by how well everyone did. By how hard they pushed themselves. Kelly conquered that impossible hill on Leg 7 without walking a single step. While every other runner broke down at some point during that wall of a climb and was forced to walk, Kelly just kept chugging along and somehow made it to the top, still running, and inspiring everyone in the van. I had a pair of tough hills on Leg 8, with a 104 heat index but told myself I’d have to push it and keep running no matter what (ok, I stopped to buy a cup of lemonade for 50 cents from a little girl whose stand was reportedly “killing it”). Denise also had herself one hell of a climb but seemed to be effortlessly floating along the road as if out for a light Sunday morning jog. And while Christine, now a Ragnar veteran, killed her 8+ mile opening run, Kelly and Denise basked in the glory and accomplishment of having completed their first run. Dan dominated his first leg, passing something like 25 people as the sun started to fall and the vans kicked up giant clouds of dust on those Wisconsin dirt roads. But Chad had one absolute bitch of a twisting, turning up-and-down, gravel-and-dust-filled journey during Leg 12 that made me thankful my first run was pretty much a straight shot. It’s nice when you can see the end but when you’re making turns every half mile and don’t know what’s next it can make your run seem twice as long. But he pushed himself and made it through.

Ready to run!

Ready to run!

Yep – the newbs killed their first legs and as we handed the baton back to Van 1, we collected ourselves, regrouped and settled in for a few hours rest. I had spent the last 12+ hours thinking mostly about the logistics of the van. Finding the next exchange point, navigating the unknown roads, making sure we had all the proper supplies, coordinating with Christine as van captains and deciding where to go next, when to stop, where to stop. This year the running was secondary. So when we finally stopped at Holiday in the middle of a small town somewhere, and I bought myself a much needed Dr. Pepper fountain drink and Little Debbie, I could finally stop and think.

Those first twelve hours had gone fast. We met up at 10:00am – that’s the advantage of being in Van 2. You get extra time to sleep and wake up feeling refreshed vs. being in Van 1 when you have to wake up at 3:00am, meet your team and 4:00 and start running around 8:00. This year I didn’t even wake up until 8:00. So by the time we finished our first leg and stopped to rest, it was about 10:30 at night, and I was simply not ready for sleep. So I didn’t.

Dan and Chad discuss the finer points of Ragnar.

Dan and Chad discuss the finer points of Ragnar.

Instead I laid on the side of a hill in my sleeping bag, with Christine on one side and Dan on the other while the rest of the group rested on seats in the van, and tried to relax and rest my body. I listened to the applause coming from the exchange point across the parking lot, and the enthusiastic announcer who called team numbers as runners approached, “Runner 152 coming in hot!” 15 minutes I laid there, then 30, trying to fall asleep. I wondered if anyone else from my van was asleep. I looked over to Dan whose eyes were closed, and then over to Christine, who opened her eyes. “Can you sleep?” I asked. “Not at all.” So we sat up and chatted for a bit. Dan rolled over and said he wasn’t sleeping either. It was still too early, or there was too much noise coming from the parking lot, or the streetlight was shining in our eyes. But it felt nice to rest and that breeze sure felt damn good. So we laid and we rested but I barely slept.

Van 1 looks way too happy!

Van 1 looks way too happy!

Soon it was 1:00 in the morning and time to move out. Van 1 arrived and we caught up with the rest of our team. This is always one of the best moments in Ragnar – those few minutes when your entire team is together and you have a chance to connect with the other van. Share quick stories of your adventures, pause for a few photos, make your own moments together before one van says it’s time to rest while the other knows it’s time to move out.

Last year I was in the same van with Donn, Meredith and Becca, who were in the opposite van this year so my time with them and with Sarah, Erica and Rachel was limited to these brief exchanges. I felt myself trying to make the most of this time as I really missed the Van 1 crew and wanted to be around them for a lot longer than Ragnar allowed. Because when it’s time to move, it’s time to move. Off we went for 6 middle-of-the-dead-to-the-night runs. The weather was perfect. Cool…so cool that I could see my breath with every exhale. I ran almost 10 miles for my second leg and it was my best run of the 2014 Ragnar, and was probably better than any run I did in Ragnar 2013.

I am a better runner this year than last year. More sophisticated. More aware of my body’s limits and how it reacts to various conditions, terrain, gels, electrolytes, salts, goos and other nutritional issues. I’m also a bit faster this year than last overall, on my regular runs, yet my Ragnar times were slightly slower this year… almost completely because of those killer hills and the heat during my first leg. But leg 2 was great. I ran for more than an hour and a half and never broke stride. For 9.6 miles I was in a fucking groove. My legs felt great, my breathing was perfect and my headlamp and night gear amazingly stayed in place and never became a distraction.

I finished that leg, collapsed onto a seat and began surfing Facebook photos to catch up on Van 1 while Dan and Kelly

Looking Cool

Looking Cool

managed the driving and navigation. That was one great thing about my van that I must mention. Even through Christine and I were captains and tasked with keeping the van on track, we still had to run and recover which meant the rest of the team needed to step up and help with logistics. This meant driving the van, navigating to the next exchange point, handing off water and generally taking charge in our absence. They did a great job. Chad was the master navigator who seemed to always have the map in hand calling out the next turn, when to stop to give our runner water, where the next road would be and how long we had until we needed to be at the next exchange. Dan was in the driver’s seat as much as Christine and I yet he always found time to meet a runner on-course and hand them a jug of water, or refill their bottle or just spray them down and cool them off. So when I finished by 9+ run and we coasted along while Denise charged through her 10-miler, I was totally confident that Dan and Kelly would lead us to the next exchange. And they did!

Caffeine. Hydration. Straws.

Caffeine. Hydration. Straws.

By the time we finished our second legs, we were physically exhausted, sleep-deprived and sick of goos and various sugar-drinks. I managed to get about a half hour of sleep but once the sun came up and we parked at the last major exchange I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Some did. Others showered and freshened up. I ate a little, rested in the van and chatted with Christine about this year vs. last year. Being captains vs. being rookies. The advantages of Van 2 over Van 1. The advantages of Van 1 over Van 2. The plan for the rest of the journey and whether we wanted to get some coffee. “I’ll drive!” I called out as soon as the idea hit and soon Chad and Kelly joined us and off we went to the nearest Caribou.

Erica drinks and runs.

Erica drinks and runs.

We had what we described as a running hangover. So tired, so clumsy yet aware that we each had one last run before the finish line. We had to summon the last of our strength, gather every bit of courage and grit and push through those final miles. It was tough, it was a grind, our legs were depleted of energy and no matter how fast I willed my body to move, it just wouldn’t go. I normally run a 3-mile route in 9:30 so I was hoping my final leg of 3.1 would be my fastest. It was but I logged a lumbering 10:30, well off my pace but I no longer cared. I ate a turkey sandwich, chugged a giant bottle of Gatorade and was thankful that my body had made it through without an injury, without a massive case of runner’s trots, without barfing or simply falling over dead.

And as the rest of the van completed their final legs, each team member collapsed into the van, sweating and breathing heavily but satisfied that they had pushed their body to the limit. One after another, as each person arrived back in the van they all had the same look on their face. A look that said not only “I’m done” but that “I did it.”

Yeah, see how tired I am?

Yeah, see how tired I am?

Ragnar is an endurance race. It’s not about speed, it’s about pushing through long miles, running while tired during any and all hours of the day or night and finishing. Whether your leg is 3 miles or 7.8, it’s only one of three that you’ll have to do. And each member of this Run Long and Perspire team had to push through miles and miles of road that stretched from Winona, Minnesota to St. Paul. For 200+ miles we had to slog on, chugging away through both heat and darkness, uphill and down, hating running and loving it at the same time.

Van 2 selfie

Van 2 selfie

You run your individual legs knowing that you’re only part of the overall adventure. I couldn’t have done 17.9 miles without someone dropping me off at my exchange, without someone meeting me after 3 miles to hand me some water, without a comfy place in the van to sit and recover. Each person struggled as much as I struggled. The only way I was able to complete 17.9 miles was because of my team. The only way any of us were able to complete a single mile was because of the team.

The sweet odor of success

The sweet odor of success

Running is an individual sport but Ragnar is a team event and this group of both veterans and rookies pulled together and moved selflessly from exchange to exchange, looking out for each other, supporting each other as we tried to achieve personal goals. And watching the newcomers get through it for the first time, while the veterans did their thing made me very happy and very proud to be on such a supportive and dedicated team.

Me, running long and perspiring.

Me, running long and perspiring.

This is my favorite race of the year, and one of my favorite weekends of the year. The second go-around, I’m not forever changed as a runner but I know that some were and that I played a part in that. As we met at the finish line and said our farewells, with everything from “See you Monday” to “See you next year,” I went home feeling satisfied that five teammates, Dan, Chad, Denise, Kelly and Rachel went home with stories and medals from an all new adventure. When Denise thanked me for asking her to be part of the team I felt touched, but mostly satisfied that I was able to share this experience with an all new gang of runners.

I write these posts to reflect but also to gather memories that will otherwise fade with the passage of time. And while I know my memories of this team with fade with time, one thing is certain: I will always remember this crew, and I hope they will always remember me.

The crew

The crew

Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Cigar City Magazine and Germ Warfare. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards.


2013 Great River Ragnar Relay: My Best Running Experience Ever

August 18, 2013

And I mean that. It started early in the morning. Damn early. A 3:00am wake up followed by a quick brushing of the teeth and splashing-of-the-water-in-the-face. Becca Peterson was to pick me up at 3:30 (she was right on time) but I had a few minutes to sit on my front steps in the quiet dark, to observe the silence of my usually active neighborhood and ponder what I was about to get myself into.

1098257_763117509977_2054142135_nAs I chewed on an untoasted blueberry pop tart I thought about everything that had brought me to that point. It started last fall with a Monster Dash half marathon that I ran with Donn MacDonald and Drew Sagstetter, two coworkers who would become my Ragnar van mates. The Monster was my first half marathon and the longest distance I had ever run. Prior to that I had done a couple 5Ks and a few solo distance runs between 8 and 12 miles, but never the full 13.1. I was just happy to finish. This is around the time Donn told me about the Ragnar relay, which was a new concept to me. 200 miles, 12 runners broken into 2 vans of 6 apiece, each runner running 3 times over the course of roughly 36 hours. Little sleep, lots of sweat and camaraderie like you’ve never experienced. It wasn’t until next summer, Donn told me circa October 2012, so I’d have plenty of time to train. And it would be fun, Donn promised. An amazing experience.

Sure, I thought. It does sound like fun. And with a half-marathon under my belt I felt like I had made my bones as a runner so I was in.

10 months later, after training with a mixture of short runs, long runs, cycling, weight lifting, stretching and general mental conditioning, I felt ready to conquer three legs that would total 17 miles. But I didn’t know what to expect from my team, the course or the experience in general. Some of us barely knew each other. There were members of the team I had only met twice before – at our initial kickoff during the winter and at our pre-race dinner the night before we’d leave for the event. The 12 members of the team were a patchwork of people who worked together, went to school together, ran together, or were friends-of-friends. I had no idea, and no expectations of how we would all get along. I was just going along for the ride with great curiosity, but little expectation of where it all would go.

At 3:30 Becca rolled up and we packed my gear in the backseat: a sleeping bag and pillow, a cooler filled with ice, Gatorade and protein drinks, and my backpack which contained enough clothes for 3 days. 3 running outfits, two pairs of shoes, a few extra T-shirts, socks, towel, pocketknife, toothbrush, magazines and anything you’d need for a 36+ hour journey into the unknown.

An hour later at the Edina Target, our van was assembled and off we went. We drove for a couple hours and as the sun slowly broke over the horizon, and after we stopped for some coffee and snacks, we reached the starting line in Winona, MN on the bank of the Mississippi River. Our spirits were high and though we grumbled that our teammates in Van #2 likely weren’t even awake, we were glad to be at the starting line knowing our van would have the fortunate experience of seeing the race from start to finish.

We wandered along the levee and mingled with other teams as our start time approached. Exact times are fuzzy to me as I quickly lost sense of what time it was and where we were. I was focused on how long I had until my leg, what I needed to consume calorie-wise, what I’d need to wear and how I would hydrate and recover. Once Christine kicked off the race and took off running towards the bridge that connected Minnesota and Wisconsin, the clock was running and it became real. I was the next runner and had only minutes to meet Christine at the first exchange point.

552643_763117939117_769711236_nPart of the fun was cheering for and supporting your team during their leg. We drove ahead of Christine, parked and jumped out of the fan to cheer, yell and play songs through our megaphone as she passed. We’d cheer for other runners too….these were honest and good-natured at first but over the course of 200+ miles when we’d cheer for other runners we’d be, well not exactly 100% supportive. Sure, we clapped and cheered and played music for them but we made sure we’d keep ourselves entertained as well. More on that later.

So after stopping a few times to wave and cheer for Christine we reached the first exchange point. I had my uniform on: green shirt, shorts, my good running shoes, black bandana. I had a small water bottle and a pair of Jolly Ranchers in my pocket. I set my iPod to my 50’s rock & roll mix. Fast, upbeat songs that set the perfect pace for my usual 10:30 mile (yeah I know, not fast). Elvis, Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, Chuck Berry. Stuff that makes me run with a lot of energy.

I was nervous. I had to pee more than I felt I should have, and I was jumping about anxiously knowing that my exact start time was not up to me. I could not wait to go running until I felt right, or until the weather was perfect, or until I was fully stretched and warmed up. As soon as Christine appeared on the road I’d be in the exchange point whether I was ready or not.

1176230_763118318357_2024243755_nAnd just minutes before Christine came jogging over the horizon a funny thing happened: a lady who I had never met before and who I did not recognize came up to me and said “You’re a [name of my company] guy.” During any race like this, or any gathering of people, I usually always know or recognize someone. I’ve spent more than 20 years of my life in the Twin Cities and I’ve met enough people through work, school and social events to pretty much guarantee that anywhere I go where there’s a large crowd, I see someone I know. But I did not know this person. She knew where I worked, but I had never seen her before in my life.

So I challenged her. “Why do you think that? I’m not wearing a [company color] badge. I’m not wearing a sensible button-down shirt….”

She came back quickly. “You were a finance guy.”

Somewhat true. I had worked on a long, high-profile project that supported my company’s division. I had a lot of face time during that project so the fact that this person recognized me, even though I did not recognize her was not much of a surprise.

“How do you know this? Who are you?” I stepped closer to get a good look at her face. But she was wearing sunglasses and running gear, not the typical outfit you’d see in the halls of corporate America. I thought that maybe I just didn’t recognize her in her civilian attire. But when she told me her name, I knew I had never met her before.

“How do you know me?””

“You worked with my sister,” she nodded confidently. “I know ALL about you. You went to [Name of my high school].”

Also true and very specific. Not many people at work know where I went to high school. I don’t recall ever telling anyone on that finance project where I went to high school. How the hell did she know that? She told me her sister’s name but it was a name that wasn’t familiar. It was mysterious and I was left never placing who this person was or how our lives intersected but at least I was notorious to someone. So I left it at that. But if you know this person, or if you are this person drop me a line so we can get this sorted out.

Back to the race. A few minutes after this strange encounter I was between the ropes at the first exchange and Christine 1157579_10202165575165212_1607142899_ncame speeding in with the Ragnar slap-bracelet in hand. I held out my arm and as I felt the bracelet coil around my wrist I turned to the course and broke into an energetic jog as “Long Tall Sally” blared in my eardrums. Right out of Predator.

It took a good two miles until I was warmed up, until my breathing was synched with my pace, my mind clear and my muscles  coordinated. Already it was unlike any race I had ever run. There was no mob of runners surrounding me. The rowdy crowd of the Monster Dash or cheering spectators of the Torchlight 5k were absent. It was just me, a handful of runners and a long stretch of highway. And when I say highway I’m talking about semi trucks speeding towards you at 60 miles per hour, their wind blowing against your body as they pass, the fumes and heat of their engines reminding you that just one accidental half-inch turn of their steering wheel can instantly reset your timer and knock you into Ragnar history.

Can’t have that. You can only hope the drivers see you because it’s a bright sunny morning and there are plenty of runners on course. Drivers know there’s a race going on and they’re being mindful. A few even honked and waved as they passed. That was encouraging. Even more encouraging was when my Ragnar van passed me on the highway, the horn honking, their screams and cheers rooting for me as they sped by. I pointed my water bottle towards them and fired off a stream of liquid, spotting the van with water and making Donn, the driver laugh as he sped away. A mile or so later I caught up to my van, now parked on the opposite side of the road with my five teammates standing outside playing music through the megaphone, shouting and clapping. I did a funny run for a few strides, like a football player waltzing into the end zone before I continued with my standard home run  trot.

It was hot and my water bottle was nearly empty so I was happy to make it to the first water station around 3 miles in. This leg was 6.2, pretty much a solo 10k and now that I was warmed up, I was feeling good. The rest of the run was fairly easy. Though I only had 5 hours sleep the night before, adrenaline and the excitement of the race, coupled with the time I knew I needed to meet meant I had no problem finishing the last 3 miles.

972168_763119206577_1355602844_nAs I approached the next exchange point, the target marked by a lane of neon orange ropes (more on neon later) and a group of cheering participants and their vans, I pulled the slap bracelet from my wrist, found our third runner, Becca in the lane and slowed my pace slightly so that I would not run her over. I transferred the bracelet to her arm and she took off towards the highway. I was catching my breath and don’t remember who walked with me as we crossed the street to our van. Don’t remember who handed me a Gatorade (I think it was Drew). Don’t remember what I said to my team. What I do remember are their smiling faces, their congratulations, the happiness I felt in seeing all of them greeting me at the finish. I thought back to the last experience I had on an actual team sport. Not beer-league softball or pickup games of playground basketball but actual organized sports teams. High-school baseball, downhill alpine racing, 8th grade basketball.  Ragnar. I remember the Gatorade and the accolades and the pats on the back, sure but what I remember most about finishing that first leg was a feeling.  The feeling that I was part of a team. A good team.

On a side note: I do remember the rusty nut and bolt that Christine handed me as an inside joke. I still have it and plan to keep the treasure along with my Ragnar medal. It’s one of those things that anyone who wasn’t part of the joke would understand. A symbol of the race, a tangible piece of camaraderie. A trinket that when unearthed ten years from now will make me smile, nod my head and say “Ah yes… Ragnar.”  A rusted piece of junk discarded and lost in the dirt years ago but discovered and picked up by one of my teammates during my leg and presented to me as a validation of our bond. A Ragnar heirloom that, who knows, I may present back to her at Ragnar 2017, or Ragnar 2021, or Ragnar 2031 after she finishes her first leg.

1187017_639583939394857_742935875_nI needed a moment to catch my breath, to hydrate my body and to change out of my sweaty clothes but I also needed to join my van-mates in driving ahead of Becca to jump out and cheer her on. My leg was over so it was no longer about me. It was about Becca. So I hopped into the backseat of the van, sat under the AC and off we went.

Becca’s run was hot and made me glad that mine was over. There were a lot of sweaty, tired bodies on this leg of the race and by the time Becca finished and handed the bracelet to Drew, I collapsed in the shade and ate a turkey sandwich. I drank two full bottles of water and then changed out of my sweaty clothes and packed them away in a plastic bag. I was recovered. Run #1 was in the books and my role shifted to supporting my team and looking forward to meeting Van #2 some miles ahead.

We cheered Drew, gave him water, played songs on our stupid megaphone and then began to pay closer attention to the other runners. Most of these people were in shape and when I say in shape I’m talking about great shape. Lean, muscular bodies clad in athletic gear with every type of running accessory you can imagine. Utility belts with three or four water bottles, compression socks around their legs, heart monitors, sports bras, booty pants, neon. Neon. Neon, and more neon.

Let me talk to you about neon. This is the fad of our day and it was never more concentrated than at the 2013 Ragnar. Entire teams clad in matching neon uniforms. Neon bracelets used to track your kills. A kill is when you pass a runner on the course and some teams keep track of these by awarding a bracelet for every kill a runner scores on the course, or by marking the side of their van the way a fighter pilot would score the enemies he has blasted from the sky.

To give you an idea of how in-shape everyone was, in 17 miles of running I scored only 4 kills. Now I’m not saying I’m an amazing athlete and was expecting to be passing everyone I could on the course. In fact, I run at a slower pace and it’s tough for me to break a 10 minute mile. But had I kept track of kills at the Monster Dash or the Grand Old Days 5k, I would have scored dozens of bracelets. Not to belittle those races but I feel that your regular 5k has a lot of casual runners. People who enjoy running and like to stay in shape but haven’t made running a lifestyle. The Ragnar was filled with lifestyle runners, and many of them are decorated in neon.

Neon shoes, neon shorts, neon socks. Heck, even my good running shoes have neon soles. Neon was everywhere. It does make for a nice contrast with tanned skin, and definitely catches the eye the way, I imagine, a shiny fishing lure reflects the sun underwater and catches the eye of a hungry walleye. So neon reduces the humble male soul to that of a wandering hungry fish who is at the mercy of his potential captor. This is the way we started to think. On limited sleep, in a van that was becoming more and more musty with each completed leg and amid a sea of runners who were detached from the reality of their jobs and home life. Delirium began to set in. We started acting loopy and comparing neon running shoes to fishing lures. It was all a game, this neon phenomenon. A trick used to capture the eye, we agreed. And we were convinced that we were correct, even though the reality is that neon is as much of a fad as bell bottoms were in the 70s, or white powdered wigs were in the 1700s. It will soon pass and years from now people will look back at their photos of Ragnar 2013 and cringe at all the fucking neon!! Can you believe people dressed like that??

1185655_10152453826376758_878080296_nThis is how we began to talk, how we began to interact. The type of banter that went on in the van. We became a subculture of a subculture. Our van was a clique among cliques and though we weren’t really competitive with other runners, we started getting to know our fellow vans at a very superficial level. Sure, we chatted with some and even recognized others as friends from work or other phases of life but for the most part we observed and commented on these other vans they way high school kids would observe other social groups.

“Did you see that lady’s abs?”

“Hell yeah, I hope I look like her when I’m her age!”

Or, “What’s with all the shirtless guys wearing short black shorts? Are they all in the same van?”

Or, “Did you see that van of women who named their team Happy Endings?”

Or, “Why is that guy carrying a blow-up doll. Does he have to run with that?”

This was our world for at least another day and we were loving every minute.

1185834_763119441107_1404438498_nSo after Drew finished his leg he handed the bracelet to Donn who had to run one bitch of a hot one on black top with little shade. At least that’s what I remember. To tell you the truth, there are many times during the Ragnar run that are blurry in my mind. Where I’m not really sure what happened or where I was sitting, what I was wearing, or how I was feeling. The first transfer from Van #1 to Van #2 is one of these times. I remember Donn commenting that his leg was one of the hardest he had ever run. I remember Meredith completing her leg with a nonchalant, no-problem attitude that seemed to give us all a boost of confidence. And I remember Meredith and Becca drinking Slush Puppies that they bought somewhere, but I don’t remember exactly where. And I do remember the beginning of an in depth hot-or-not conversation that lasted throughout the 200-mile race.

We also covered the qualifications of cougarism but since enough TV shows and movies are already covering that subject, I’ll stick to the race.

I remember using an ATM to get cash, and buying two losing $1 lottery scratch-offs. I remember cheering for other runners while we were parked at a gas station and morphing our cheers from encouraging “You look great!” to the (what we thought to be funny at the time) “You look above-average!”

But it was good natured and all in good fun and most runners were wearing headphone and listening to music and couldn’t hear what we were shouting anyway. Hey, they saw total strangers cheering for them and that’s what mattered. At least that’s what I told myself.

Somewhere during all of this Meredith handed off the bracelet to Sarah from Van #2 and Van #1’s first shift was over. Van #2 would run six runners which meant we had time to rest, eat and regroup. But we were not ready to wave “good luck!” to Van #2 and proceed on our way. We decided to linger (heh heh, linger…a Van #1 inside joke) and root for Van #2. Sarah had a tough run uphill and while most of Van #1’s first leg was on pavement Van #2 seemed to be blessed with dirt roads. And with dozens of vans and runners speeding along these dirt roads, the world became a giant dust cloud that I imagine these poor runners had to breathe as they chugged along, uphill under a hot afternoon sun. It made me feel fortune to have started so early. Sure, it sucked to wake up at 3:00am but I least I didn’t have to run in this shit!

1185987_10201618196353909_1172737559_nWe watched Sarah hand off to Molly and then meandered back to our van and went to find ourselves a meal. It wasn’t breakfast or lunch of dinner because at this point I had no concept of time, and I had lost all memory of the order of daily routines. I just knew I needed to eat. And apparently every other Van #1 in the rest of Ragnar felt the same way because every restaurant in this small town of Pepin, Wisconsin was packed. But we were lucky to find seats at the bar and small nearby table at The Pickle Factory. I had a cheeseburger with two Sprites and a glass of water with lemon. It was a glorious meal. Exactly what I needed but more important than the food was the time Van #1 got to spend together at the restaurant. We were on a break, and didn’t need to hurry to the next exchange point to pick up one of our runners. It was the first time we had been all together since the starting line. We had a chance to reflect on everything that had happened that day. It was sometime in the afternoon but I don’t know the exact hour. I think it was just before the regular dinner hour, late afternoonish, so we were probably a good 12 hours into the event.

The break at the restaurant also gave us a chance to clean up. The soap and running water in the bathroom was like an oasis in the desert and I rinsed not only my face Mollyand hands but arms and legs (and more…). It was very refreshing and I felt ready for my next leg.

I could tell at this dinner that our team was going to continue to have a great time. We had really gelled up to that point. There had been good chemistry. And as we ate our meal, that chemistry only solidified. Any tension among the group had been almost sarcastically directed at other teams. In the form of our “You look above-average!” or “I give you a 4.5!” supporting cheers and our observations that we’ve seen enough tutus to last for another 10 Ragnars, thank you very much but damn these people are in good shape! Really, they were. It was something to aspire too.

After dinner, or our meal, or whatever it was, we refilled our ice supply, filled the van with gas (I think) and headed to the next major exchange point to meet up with Van #2. This exchange point was a park by the lake populated by rows and rows of vans. People were everywhere, some were sleeping but most were socializing. We caught up with some friends who were running on other teams and had a chance to look over the other vans. The most exciting one was the actual Uncle Rico van from Napoleon Dynamite.

1014329_10201776967283584_2027020605_nSoon it would be time for Scott to finish his run, completing Van #2’s first shift and handing things off to Christine so Van #1 could begin our night running. This meant headlamps, butt lamps and reflective vests which everyone was required to wear once it got dark. We realized we hadn’t applied our Ragnar temp tattoos so we took care of that, only Drew accidentally left the plastic covering on his, coining the phrase “Polish tattoo.” We also had no cloth to apply the tattoos except for a sweaty rag from my first run which somehow ended up dangling from Christine’s fingers.

Things seemed to be moving quickly and before we knew it, Scott came bounding into the exchange point and Christine took off and disappeared into the night. Van #2 had completed their first legs and the race was back in the hands of Van #1. It was dark almost as soon as we left the exchange point and Christine had the fortune of running along a very narrow stretch of highway that was also cluttered by construction. Confusing and probably not very safe but we tried to stick with her and hop out to give our regular cheers.

Since it was dark we broke out the glow sticks (I tied two within the laces of each of my shoes). We cranked up the music in the van, turned on our headlamps and created a roving disco. It looked pretty funny from the street, as I would later learn during my night run. I had a 5+ miler coming up but the last two miles were a constant incline up a fairly steep hill. At least on paper, it looked like a beast.

After Christine handed off the bracelet, I broke into my second run. It was probably around 10 or 10:30 at night and once I ran out of the small town where the exchange took place I was in almost pitch darkness. There were no lights, no buildings, no nothing. Just miles of dark highway and a car or truck speeding by every few minutes. It was hard to feel completely safe during this leg, and I tried to stay close to the edge of the shoulder and as far from the street as I could. But beside the shoulder was a very soft track of sand or loose dirt. So if you veered too far from the road and too close to the edge of the shoulder, your foot could slip into the seam between hard road and soft ground and trip you up. This would prove to be perilous for our next runner.

I had to thank the Ragnar brass for requiring reflective vests and headlamps because they were literal lifesavers. I needed to use the headlamp to see the street otherwise I would have stumbled over obstacles or missed the street entirely. Practically the only thing guiding me was the red blinking of butt lamps from the runners just ahead of me. But the darkness ended up being to my advantage as it masked the severity of the hill I was climbing; I had no idea how steep it was or how far it stretched. I knew I was running uphill but to what degree I had no idea.

This meant I was able to finish strong and run into a great crowd that was waiting at the exchange point. This one really 1176277_10202170235201710_452962527_npumped me up and I would point to this finish as a personal high-point for the race.  I had conquered a tough hill and did it nearly within my pace but felt as if I could run another five miles. When I handed the bracelet to Becca the team apologized and said we needed to hurry to the next exchange because Becca had a short leg.

The high point of my race would quickly be followed by the low point for another. While waiting at the exchange point for Becca to cross, another runner said that a runner from team 63 had fallen on the course. We are team 63. The fallen runner was Becca. There was a moment of confusion to confirm the news and then we started walking backwards into the course, in search of our fallen runner. Drew was up next so he took off running to grab the slap-bracelet and continue the race. Minutes later I was heartbroken to see Becca walking with Donn, tears in her eyes and blood all over her leg. My first thought was that she was injured and out of the race. With all the months of preparation and training, injuring yourself out of the race would be a crushing blow and I hoped that under that blood were just a few scratches. I hoped that Becca would be able to recover quickly and complete her last leg. If not, Meredith was available to run in her place but it wouldn’t be the same to have one runner sit out. We needed to get Becca cleaned up and ready for her next leg, which would be in less than 12 hours.

She received some quick first aid but there would not be an official first aid station until the next major exchange point, 3 runners later. She’d have to hold on.

946358_763119805377_1352036285_nDrew conquered his run and then Donn took over. We were off the highway now and running through farmland and corn fields. I had completely lost track of time – the movement of the sun had been my only reference and who ever knows exactly what time the sun sets? All I knew is that my body was starting to crash and I desperately needed to lie down and stretch my legs. Even two hours of sleep would be most welcome. As we followed along with Donn and eventually Meredith, I observed Becca (who was driving) and was happy to see she remained in good spirits. The rest of the crew was getting quiet as we had been awake for nearly 24 hours.

Finally we reached the next major exchange where Becca went to the first aid tent and the rest of us went into some high school (again, I had no idea where we were) to use the bathroom and wash up. Soap and running water was very welcome and I rinsed my face, arms and legs again. I returned to the first aid tent to watch Becca wince in pain as the medic cleaned and dressed her wound – and quite a wound I was. Not deep, but big. Scratches covered half her leg below the knee and had been layered by gravel. It could have been much worse but I was happy to hear Becca felt a lot better.

At the exchange point we regrouped with Van #2, who had spent their time resting. They had slept a few hours and were just waking up when we found them. It was around 2:00am by now and I couldn’t wait for Meredith to reach the exchange point so we could retire and lay down for a few hours. When Meredith arrived and handed off to Sarah, we didn’t stick around long. Roughly forty-five minutes later we pulled into a crowded parking lot at Stillwater Junior High, unpacked our sleeping bags and gear and carried it into the school where we could sleep in one of two gyms, and even catch a shower if we so chose.

I was more concerned with sleep than cleanliness and felt an extra 30 minutes of sleep was more valuable than spending Emilythat time cleaning up. I would describe the walk into the school as the physical and emotional low point of the journey for me. I had been awake for 24 hours, my body was exhausted, my mind was pretty much already asleep and I wanted nothing more than to just lie down. Having to unpack gear and carry it across a parking lot and then through the halls of the school was a downright drag but it would be unremarkable compared to what I was about to see.

Imagine when a tornado hits a town and there is nowhere for anyone to go except the local high school gym. Imagine hundreds of people, refugees, packed into the gym with their blankets and sleeping bags, and maybe a few personal possessions. This is exactly what we saw at Stillwater Junior High except instead of homeless families they were runners. A dark gymnasium filled with hundreds of sleeping runners. Organized in rows, side by side by side, resting in silent darkness. Maybe there was  a muffled snore, or someone shifting in their sleeping bag but otherwise it was dead silent, and very eerie. My clock told me it was 2:45am.

563336_10201780736657816_1586469465_nThere were two gyms like this in the school. The first was filled to capacity and the second one had only a few spaces, so we unrolled our sleeping bags and like kids having a sleepover lied down among the rows and quickly fell asleep.

We slept for roughly 3 hours and when we awoke the gym was nearly empty. All those people had awoke, gathered their things and quietly stepped out making barely a sound. Or perhaps we were all so tired that we slept through the noise of two hundred people leaving a crowded gym but I like to think or fellow runners were as respectful as we were when we entered, and moved about as quietly as possible.

When I woke up I asked how much time we had only to learn that we needed to move. We had less than an hour to get to the next exchange point and Van #2 was breezing through their night runs. After a quick visit to the head, I slammed a cup of coffee being handed out to all runners outside the gym, brushed my teeth and met up with my team at our van. I was happy to be runner #2 in our van and let someone else run the tough early morning run on 3 hours sleep. I would have a few extra minutes to wake up, eat something and stretch out.

I hardly remember the hand off from Scott to Christine, or seeing any of the Van #2 runners at the exchange point. I was barely awake but by the time we reached the next exchange, and I was dressed in a fresh set of clothes, or uniform as I called it, I felt ready for my final 5.5 miler. But I had questions…. would my body hold up for this last leg or would it quit on me halfway through? Would Becca be able to finish her third leg? How would the others feel during their third legs? Would we all crash or had 3 hours sleep been enough?

One thing we kept saying was that we couldn’t believe what little amount of time had actually passed. We had been together for roughly 28 hours. Christine’s opening run at the starting line the day before seemed like 2 days ago. Our meeting at the Edina Target late in the night seemed like 3 or 4 days ago and the pizza dinner the night before the race began was a distant memory. Weeks in the past. The reality was that it had been only 36 hours since that pizza dinner. Yet it was among the most distant of my many memories.

My third run was fairly easy. The weather was perfect and the terrain was fairly flat. It was another highway run so I had to be careful of oncoming traffic but I had a nice little trail run at one point and during the last two miles I had enough energy left in the tank to go all out. The final run of my final leg was actually my fastest mile of the 17 I had run during the Ragnar. I literally ran that mile as if it were my last.

When I finished I was cheerful, I was happy, I was satisfied. And handing the bracelet to a somewhat rested and hardly repaired Becca was inspiring. With that nasty wound on her leg there she was waiting at the exchange point for the handoff so she could run her final leg. That’s the true definition of playing while injured. We were all so proud of her!

1001399_10152455570796758_1847720542_nBecca finished her leg and said it was painful but she finished anyway! and Drew’s took us into Afton Alps. It was getting warmer now and the sun was bright and high in the sky. Donn was going to have some tough hills on the way out of Afton and then a long stretch of farmland style roads. A long, straight stretch with no shade and lots of challenging hills. We stopped a few times to give him water and even aid runners from other vans, most who appreciated our efforts. I say most because there was one guy who refused our water three times, even though he carried none and was clearly in need of a refresh. We practically insisted he take some water and he finally agreed to a very tiny pour on the back of his neck and god forbid, don’t get any on his hair.

We got smart with a few of these runners and tried to charge them 50 cents for the water but they knew we were kidding. As we departed from our impromptu water stand we patted ourselves on the back for doing a good deed and then admitted we only gave out water to make ourselves feels better, and no to make sure runners didn’t pass out. In the end, it was all about us. This is how you think when you’re sleep deprived and exhausted. We were not living in a rational world.

A fun thing happened at the next exchange point. While waiting for Donn and carrying around the ice cold 32 oz Gatorade he would need once his leg was complete, we met a tiny kitten who was running throughout the parking lot at top speed. Ducking under vans, jumping into vans and just scurrying about with the most excited attitude I’ve seen in a kitten. And he looked almost exactly like Flash, a 7 month old cat we had in our family until he got sadly sick and had to be put to sleep.

Meredith was able to catch him so I could take a few pictures to show my family back home (back home, it sounded so far 9360_10201782633505236_1314409343_naway at the time)…She let the cat go and he kept running around and ran right to the exchange point, finally resting right between the orange ropes where the runners would soon arrive. To the derision of the 30 or so spectators a runner in a rainbow tutu picked up the little guy and threw him off the course. And I mean threw. She did not pick him up and gently set him aside, she tossed him into the grass like you toss a dirty shirt into the laundry.

The crowd witnessed this and reacted with almost universal scorn. “Hey!” “Come on!” and gasps of horror arose from the people but tutu lady turned to us and said, “He landed on his feet!” as if we were in the wrong for calling her out. A minute later tutu lady was nowhere to be found. I don’t know if that’s because she was the next runner or if she hid in her van but I never saw her again. However, the cat was picked up by a friendly lady who said she would give him a home if he had no other place to go. All was well in the world of stray cats.

1146698_763119765457_843607026_nSoon Donn rounded the corner and handed off to Meredith for our van’s final leg. He slammed his Gatorade and we jumped into the van and headed to Park high school where we met Van #2 for the final exchange and the end of our shift. Another major exchange point so vans were everywhere. We were also able to catch up to some of our volunteers – Donn’s wife and Christine’s husband were there helping out at the booths. It was good to see them and I wish we had more time to chat but with Meredith coming through for the final exchange and our teammates from Van #2 hanging around I wanted to get as much team time as I could.

Meredith finished her leg, told us about her skinny kill (when you pass a runner who appears to be more fit than you are – a nice way of saying it) and then we cleaned out the van. All garbage was removed. Our clothes and possessions were organized and then we had the sad act of returning to that original Target parking lot in Edina to get in our cars, drive to a restaurant for another meal before heading to the finish line to meet Van #2.

The Target parking lot was surreal. People were shopping. People were engaged in their routines. This world seemed to have order to it. A mundane sense of tasks and to-do lists. A world of people naïve to what we were going through. Since our team’s theme was Running Back to the Future, I imagined it was how Marty felt when he returned to 1985 and met up with his family, who was completely unaware of what he had just been through. Reality for them had never changed, while Marty had returned from a life-altering quest.

That’s how I felt: life-altered. Not so much enlightened but feeling as though I had been through something that few people could completely understand. I could tell people about what I did and show them pictures and videos but would anyone every really get it? It was in that Target parking lot where I realized that the Ragnar people are like a family. We belong to a world that many people are not a part of, and would chose to never be part of! We’re crazies, weirdoes, fools who spend money to torture our bodies and minds and then return with nothing but a medal and a T-shirt. To an outsider I can understand why it may appear that way, but having gone through it, I now understand. Ragnar fundamentally changed who I am as a runner and as an athlete.

1170743_10202171572195134_1569983632_nBut it was not over yet. We still had not crossed the finish line. After breakfast at the Pancake House (breakfast at around 3:00pm) we headed to the U of M and for the first time, 203 miles later, encountered the finish line. It was a glorious sight. The end of an epic journey. White tents, music blaring, runners wandering about. The inflatable orange threshold above the finish line was our Sea of Tranquility. We were there, man. We made it! And in just a little while the final runner, Scott would come speeding into view and then we’d all run through the finish line as a team.

But first we needed to fuck with more runners.

That megaphone came in handy again and as each runner came by and gathered their team for a final 12-person sprint to the finish we took turns shouting out things like “Looking mediocre at best!”, “Squeeze those cheeks!” and “Your fly is open!” To a team of women dressed as brides, we asked if they really should be wearing white even though, as I shouted “They look like virgins to me!” To a team dressed like pimps and whores we asked where they purchased their outfits and one flashed us her purple panties. For a good hour we made cat calls and shouted one-liners. Most of which I can’t remember although I do know that some were hilarious….to us…at that moment and in that frame of mind. Who knows how annoying we were, or if anyone actually heard anything we were saying.

21426_10201958554872458_1159161861_nThere was enough time to grab a beer for those of us who wanted one and then Scott came tearing into view and as planned, our team-shirted crew ran through the finish line together. A team photo took place soon after and then we tore into two pizzas and devoured them in minutes. The Great River Ragnar Run of 2013 had ended. We didn’t linger (heh…linger again). We were tired and wanted to get home and cleaned. We hugged, we shook hands, and we wished each other well. Some of us asked to be involved next year and whether or not we would do the Ragnar again, we all left with smiles.

I spent several hours that night going through pictures, which did an excellent job of filling in the many gaps in my memory. I drank a couple beers and rested on the couch and then slept for 10 hours, one of the longest sleeps I’ve had in years. I woke up feeling tired and sore and a little depressed. The event was over and it had been such a departure, such a thrilling adventure, that I wanted to be only in that frame of mind. Morning meant I was confronted with the routine of life, obligations at work, bills to pay, to-do lists to execute.

It was a sad feeling knowing the Ragnar was over and that I could soon be like one of those unknowing souls in the Target parking lot. All the hours or training, the many protein drinks and smoothies I’d consumed after my runs, the times I had spotted my Ragnar coworkers in the hallways at work and asked how their training was going. That was all over. I was downright bummed. I wanted to be with my team and enjoy the banter and jokes and excitement of the race. But then I realized all quests come to an end. All adventurers eventually return home to tell the tale, which is why I’m writing this very long blog post.

I know I left out a lot. Spit-siblings, feminism, card games, Daytona Beach, baseball talk and descriptions of water bottles so I hope your memories can fill in those gaps. And I feel bad that most of this is biased towards Van #1 but it was with Van #1 where most of my experiences took place.

The friends I made during the event, especially my mates in the van will always occupy a fond place in my memory. I’m not even sure if I would call them friends because they are more than that. I guess it’s like how veterans feel returning from war. Not to put us anywhere near that class, but combat soldiers share an experience that no one who wasn’t part of their group would ever understand. Fortunately our experience was much more positive.

1006332_763119166657_345649024_nFrom now on, whenever I see any of my teammates we’ll share a knowing smile. 36 hours and 203 miles of running will be contained into a tiny little nod. A grin. A look that will say I was there with you, friend, and I know how hard you worked. I know exactly what you went through and I’m so glad that I did it with you.

It’s a bond I hope to have for the rest of my life. Twenty years from now when someone asks me “Do you know Drew Sagstetter?” Or Erica or John or Emily or Sarah or Christine or Donn or Scott or Meredith or Becca or Molly, I won’t say “Sure, we used to work together,” or “Sure, we ran together.” Instead I’ll say, “Hell yeah, we did Ragnar together and it was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life!”

As I sit here, forever changed as a runner and more experienced as a person I can’t shake the gloom. This is probably what an athlete feels like after they retire from a sport knowing their years on the field are over and it’s time for a new stage of life.

But hey! I am not retired! I’m not paid to run, I do it because it’s something I love to do. It gives me peace, it helps me stay healthy and it’s a great way to make new friends. I’m not retired, I’m just taking a few days off. I’ll be back at it in no time. And the only way to build that excitement, to experience the thrill of the Ragnar is to start training for next year and do it all over again. So…who’s with me?

Come on now…don’t linger.

Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Cigar City Magazine and Germ Warfare. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards.